Slavery and Torture


On the aniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, it's worth recalling that torture is inextricably linked to slavery. As Scott Horton explains more fully here, when Wilberforce and Wesley aimed to persuade the British elites that the slave trade was evil, they did not cite Biblical proscriptions against slavery. Why? Because the Bible is actually very ambiguous about slavery (the Southern Baptist Convention even used scripture to defend slavery in America). So Wilberforce stressed that the slave trade required unspeakable cruelty, abuse and torture of its victims. That was his rhetorical gambit. He framed his case against the slave trade as a case against inhumane treatment of prisoners of war. The print above was part of the abolitionist case and it was designed to show human beings whose dignity has been violated. The detail I find most arresting is that the small text explains how tightly packed the slaves were on the ship "in the manner of galleries in a church." Wilberforce was appealing to his fellow Christians. And he believed he could persuade them about inhumane treatment more easily than he could persuade them about slavery.

But the two were and are inextricable. Torture was necessary to maintain slavery. It was integral to slavery. You cannot have slavery without some torture or the threat of torture; and you cannot have torture without slavery. You cannot imprison a free man for ever unless you have broken him; and you can only forcibly break a man's soul by torturing it out of him. Slavery dehumanizes; torture dehumanizes in exactly the same way. The torture of human beings who have no freedom and no recourse to the courts is slavery.

Torture, like slavery, is the anti-freedom; it is the negation of freedom. George Washington was right when he defined the meaning of America in part by his radical, unconditional and absolute disavowal of such a practice. I find it telling that Wilberforce's peers were more troubled by torture than they were by slavery itself. Today, slavery is unthinkable. But torture? It's just "coercive interrogation."

This is surely Lincoln's and Wilberforce's lesson for us: an America that includes torture is no less a self-refutation than an America that includes slavery. There are political causes and there are moral causes that leave mere politics behind. The end of torture is now one of these causes, just as the end of slavery once was.

Remember Washington. Remember Wilberforce. It is not too late to give America back to herself. And it is not too late for the Christians in this country to follow Wilberforce's example and speak this truth to the power that now resides in the White House. Here's one place to start.